While sitting in a crowded café, holding a cup of coffee in your hand, catching up with an old friend, have you ever stopped to wonder how you learned to engage in a conversation? Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t… but you are now. Either way, if you have some familiarity with ABA, you might have heard the word “intraverbal” before. I bet you HAVE asked yourself, “What in the world is an intraverbal and why is it important?” Intraverbals play a key role in individuals moving from communicating with short demand-type response (referred to as “mands”) to being able to engage in conversations.
In the field of ABA, an intraverbal is a verbal operant that was defined by B.F. Skinner in 1957 as being evoked by a verbal discriminative stimulus, lacks formal similarity, and is maintained by generalized reinforcement. Generally speaking, an intraverbal is a verbal response that you emit because of something that has been stated by another person, which is different from what the first speaker stated, and is reinforced by what the other individual says or does in return. We engage in intraverbal behavior when we answer questions, describe, explain, or complete a statement made by others.
Intraverbals are often taught by first teaching individuals to complete fill-in-the-blank statements (i.e. “Twinkle twinkle little ___”, “Woof says a ___”, “Fork and ___”). After an individual shows that they have a good handle on fill-in-the-blank targets, they might begin to work on answering WH questions such as “What do you sleep in?” “Where do you wash your hands?” “When do you eat dinner?” From there they may move on to engaging in multiple exchanges of questions and answers with another individual. An example of this would be if someone asked, “What is your favorite color?” the individual would respond with the name of a color, and then ask the other person what their favorite color is (“My favorite color is blue. What is your favorite color?”). The number of exchanges progressively builds, with the end result being that the individual is able to continue a conversation!
Intraverbals, the building block of conversational exchanges, ‘WH’ question answering and so many other things. Next time you are in a café, think about what happens when you say ‘Hi, how are you?’ or ‘May I have a cup of coffee with two creams?’. The relationship between your speech and the speech of the other is dictated by the learner’s history (experience with other conversations) and also attending to what was stated. Intraverbals are the beginning of the conversation!!!